Girls imagine themselves as little leaders

Vashti Harrison's book celebrates the power of girlhood dreams

For some people, sliding through the stages from childhood to a career in adulthood is a smooth transition, but for others it is a rocky road.

In some serendipitous cases, a more difficult journey ultimately makes a bigger bang, transforming society for the better.

Take Sojourner Truth, for example. She was born into slavery in the United States in 1797, but escaped and became a prominent women’s rights advocate and abolitionist winning a landmark legal case to free her son from slavery.

The powerful words of her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, urging equality, delivered in 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, still resonate today.

So much so, that when author Vashti Harrison first read Truth’s biography in conjunction with a social media campaign she was running on Instagram for Black History Month, she was profoundly moved.

Overwhelmed with emotion

Each day, in February 2017, Harrison juxtaposed the story of an African American woman with an illustration she had drawn herself on Instagram, Facebook’s picture sharing service.

She was so swept away by the passionate personal reaction she had as she interacted with their stories through her drawing, that she became inspired to put them together in a book.

“I read Sojourner Truth’s biography and I was just so overwhelmed with emotion,” Harrison said. “I knew her name as an abolitionist and women’s rights activist but there was a human element to her story I never really had known or considered.”

A pleasantly powerful and confronting book titled Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History emerged, featuring the illustrated biographies of 40 trailblazing women determined to achieve their goals no matter how great the barriers to their success seemed.

Important stories long neglected

“On the surface level I really just wanted to highlight the contributions that African American women have made to American history - to focus on the stories that have been long neglected throughout history,” Harrison explained.

“But on a personal level, I think so much about the little girl who doesn’t know what she wants to do when she grows up - I want to let them know that it’s OK to want to do a million things; it’s OK to not know what you want to do yet.”

Harrison’s drawings depict children dressed up as the adult women featured in the book.

“I chose to make them children,” Harrison said. “I think a lot about these studies that say that little black girls are seen as less innocent and more adult than other little girls in the same age range and it breaks my heart.”

Art as a secret power

Deep down, Harrison said that she considers art a secret power. She was terrified she would be unable to have a successful career as an artist.

“My secret power was art making, image making and storytelling, and that can help change people,” Harrison said. “I want kids to know that it’s OK to take your time, to play the long game, to just be you.”

Inspiring and empowering future generations

Harrison hopes that some of the stories will inspire them and empower them in their own abilities.

“I think we all have our own particular strengths and there should be no reason anyone should doubt that they have the ability to be successful in the world with what they already have,” Harrison added.

Poet Maya Angelou, singer Shirley Bassey, chemist Alice Ball, politician Shirley Chisholm, Pilot Bessie Coleman, filmmaker Julie Dash, mathematician Katherine Johnson are among the women represented in the book.

“I just wanted to create the kind of stories that connect with people on a personal level because I feel like once you understand a person’s story you empathise with them and in a way that will help you understand where they are coming from,” she said.

“From a feminist perspective, it’s important to think about intersectionality and acknowledge that we’re all a part of this story. I wanted to focus in on some great, powerful, encouraging stories that no one gets to hear all too often.”


IWD - Vashti Harrison - Little Leaders


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